The Guantanamo Bay detention center will not close today or any day soon.
But the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday stripped away the legal premise for the remote prison camp that officials opened six years ago in the belief that American law would not reach across the Caribbean to a U.S. naval station in Cuba.
“To the extent that Guantanamo exists to hold detainees beyond the reach of U.S. courts, this blows a hole in its reason for being,” said Matthew Waxman, a former detainee affairs official at the Defense Department.
And without that, much will change.
The decision granted detainees the right to challenge their detention in civilian courts, meaning that federal judges will now have the power to check the government’s claims that the 270 men still held there are dangerous terrorists. That will force officials to answer questions about evidence that they have long deflected despite international criticism and expressions of support, from President Bush on down, for closing the camp.
Some cases, though no one can be sure how many, are likely to result in court orders freeing detainees. The government said Thursday that its prosecutions before military commissions at Guantanamo would continue, but habeas corpus suits resulting from the justices’ decision are certain to complicate the 19 war crimes cases under way, giving detainees’ lawyers a vehicle to try to stop those proceedings.
Just as important, some lawyers said, defending scores of cases will be a huge burden for the government, likely increasing pressure inside the Bush administration to send detainees back to their home countries.
Nearly 100 of the 270 detainees are Yemenis. American officials have said they have not repatriated many of them because of fears that they would be released quickly. The decision Thursday, several lawyers said, could encourage American officials to take their chances, shrinking the population by a third or more.
Detainees’ lawyers have long claimed that the government will not be able to justify the detention of many of the men. Pentagon officials, on the other hand, have maintained that classified evidence establishes that many of them are dangerous. The federal courts will now have the power to sort through those claims.
But the justices’ decision did not change some realities that have long made it easier to say that the Guantanamo detention center should be closed than to figure out how. Just last month Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who advocates closing the camp, told Congress that “we’re stuck” in Guantanamo.
One military official said Thursday that those complications remained as confounding after the ruling as they were before. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the court ruling and spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that practical difficulties had stalled plans for an alternative to Guantanamo. Among those is the question of where to put detainees whom the administration views as too dangerous to release.